From strategic games to game theory

Chess

ETH-Bibliothek, Image Archive

Game theory is a mathematical discipline which models and studies interactive processes based on strategic games that depend on decisions made. It provides the mathematical basis for decision-making in many situations.

The mathematical theory of strategic games was developed by mathematician John von Neumann in conjunction with economist Oskar Morgenstern with a view to facilitating a rational analysis of economic and social conflict situations. In their seminal work "Theory of games and economic behaviour" (first published in 1944), they explained game theory as a field of mathematics with applications in politics and economics. 

Although mathematical analyses of strategic games existed long before, they merely provided answers to specific problems. The similarity between chess and situations in real life was recognised as early as the fourteenth century. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710 was probably the first to formulate the need for a theory of games where the outcome does not depend solely on chance. In 1713 James de Waldegrave described the optimum strategy for the card game "Le Her".

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ernst Zermelo (1913) published a mathematical analysis of chess. And from 1921 to 1927, Emile Borel wrote several articles on games for two people, for which he could provide the ideal strategy. A key paper by John von Neumann entitled "Zur Theorie der Gesellschaftsspiele", which was published in "Mathematische Annalen" in 1928 and provides general evidence of the existence of optimum strategies for two-player games, is also worthy of mention.